U.S. citizen, Marines vet Willy Cancel killed fighting in Ukraine against Russia, family says

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Willy Joseph Cancel, an American citizen and U.S. Marine veteran fighting in Ukraine, was killed during the Russian invasion this week, according to his family. He was 22.

Cancel, who had gone to Ukraine with a force from a private military contracting company, died Monday as part of the international brigade of soldiers fighting against Russia, his mother, Rebecca Cabrera, told CNN. Cancel, who his mother said had been in Ukraine since last month, is believed to be the first known American killed in action in Ukraine.

“He wanted to go over because he believed in what Ukraine was fighting for, and he wanted to be a part of it to contain it there so it didn’t come here, and that maybe our American soldiers wouldn’t have to be involved in it,” Cabrera said.

Cancel’s wife of nearly three years, Brittany, confirmed his death to Fox News, saying, “My husband did die in Ukraine.” She told ABC News that Cancel, a detention officer in Kentucky who was “eager to volunteer” to help Ukraine. He leaves behind a 7-month-old son, Anthony, according to a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Cancel’s family.

“My husband was very brave and a hero,” she said. “I did not expect to be a widow at 23 years old or for our son to be without a father.”

Cancel’s father, Willy Cancel Jr., told The Washington Post that his son “just wanted to help out.”

“I’m not going to lie, I tried telling him, ‘Hey, think about it,’ ” the father said. “He thought people needed help.”

The circumstances of Cancel’s work in Ukraine were still unclear as of Friday. The Post could not independently confirm that he was employed by a private military contracting company. When asked at a Friday news conference whether the Defense Department employs any contractors in Ukraine right now, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, “Not that I’m aware of.”

His father said the family still doesn’t know how his son died or where in Ukraine he was at the time.

“We honestly have no idea,” Cancel Jr. said.

A State Department official confirmed to The Post that the agency was “aware of these reports and are closely monitoring the situation.”

“Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment,” the official said. “We once again reiterate U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine due to the active armed conflict and the singling out of U.S. citizens in Ukraine by Russian government security officials, and that U.S. citizens in Ukraine should depart immediately if it is safe to do so using any commercial or other privately available ground transportation options.”

Cancel’s death was announced hours after Ukraine said five Russian missiles rocked the capital of Kyiv during a visit by United Nations Secretary General António Guterres with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Russian officials confirmed it struck the city, saying Friday that it had destroyed an arms factory.

In the United States, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers Thursday that the world had changed dramatically and declared support for Finland and Sweden joining NATO. Earlier Thursday, President Biden asked Congress to approve a $33 billion spending package with military and humanitarian aid for the country.

Missiles hit Kyiv during U.N. chief’s visit; Russia makes slow gains in east

At least three other American citizens have been killed in Ukraine since the start of the invasion. Serge Zevlever, a 62-year-old Ukrainian American living in St. Louis who had helped hundreds of children from Ukraine with medical needs get adopted into American families, was killed by a Russian sniper outside Kyiv just days into the invasion, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Award-winning American journalist Brent Renaud, 50, was fatally shot while reporting outside Kyiv on March 13. Days later, James Whitney Hill, 68, was killed while trying to obtain food for himself, his partner and other very ill patients at Chernihiv Regional Hospital in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.

American killed in Ukraine was trying to feed his sick partner and others in hospital, sister says

The International Legion, a special unit of foreign fighters created by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry who wanted to join the fight against Russia, found interest from more than 20,000 volunteers and veterans from more than 50 countries in early March, Brig. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, commander of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry, told the Associated Press.

The war has continued to be dangerous for people from all over the world who have volunteered to fight or assist in humanitarian efforts. Russian forces captured two British volunteers as they were trying to help three people leave Ukraine, according to a Britain-based nonprofit. Dominik Byrne, a co-founder of the Presidium Network, an aid group working in Ukraine, told the BBC that the men were operating independently although they had been in contact with his aid group. The men, who were identified by Byrne to the Associated Press as Paul Urey and Dylan Healy, were conducting an evacuation of a woman and two children from a village south of Zaporizhzhia, he said, and were last heard from after passing through a checkpoint Monday.

A 25-year-old Dane who volunteered to fight for Ukraine was also killed this week in Mykolajiv, according to Danish broadcaster TV2.

Cancel joined the Marine Corps in December 2017 as an infantry rifleman, serving with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, a unit at Camp Lejeune, N.C. His awards indicate he spent some time at sea and in South Korea, said Maj. Jim Stenger, a service spokesman.

On Aug. 31, 2020, however, Cancel was convicted of violating a lawful general order and sentenced to 154 days of confinement, reduction in rank from lance corporal to private, and a bad-conduct discharge. The case stemmed from Cancel bringing a weapon on base, said an official familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Cancel left the service in November.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said Friday that the Defense Department has no information about Cancel or his actions in Ukraine, but offered condolences to his family.

The official said the Pentagon continues to urge Americans not to go to Ukraine, “no matter how altruistic they may be,” citing the dangers.

Cancel Jr. said his son “didn’t tell me too much” about traveling to Ukraine to fight in the war.

“Just that he was going,” the father told The Post. “[He] kept it pretty hush-hush.”

Days after his death, Cancel’s family members are now pleading for his body to be located and returned to the United States.

“They are trying, the men that were with him,” Cabrera told CNN, “but it was either grab his body or get killed, but we would love for him to come back to us.”

Brittany Cancel told Fox that her husband had dreams of one day becoming a police officer or a New York City firefighter. Now, she’s hoping that she, their loved ones and infant son can say goodbye.

“All I want is for him to come home, and to give him the proper burial he deserves,” she said.

Cancel’s family wrote in the online fundraiser that they were “simply distraught and … have no idea how to continue.” They reflected on how Anthony would grow up without his dad, who they described as “brave and selfless and whose life was senselessly lost.”

“While he will grow knowing that his father died a hero, we know this will not be easy,” the family wrote. “No parent should ever have to bury their child, and no child should have to grow up without a parent.”

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